I spent a year in space on the International Space Station.  The experience still suffocates me - this is what my days looked like.

I spent a year in space on the International Space Station. The experience still suffocates me – this is what my days looked like.

  • Mark T. Vande Hei, 55, is a NASA astronaut who spent a year in space orbiting Earth.
  • He just got back and didn’t expect his term to last 355 days, but he was prepared for it.
  • He said his days included meetings and experiences. On the weekend they had a movie night.

This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Mark T. Vande Hei, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Before working at NASA, I earned a master’s degree in applied physics at Stanford and was a professor of physics at West Point. One day during my long career in the United States military, a senior army astronaut came to an army space operations conference looking for someone to work in the astronaut office in the part of an agreement to expand the experience base of space operations officers in the military.

I completed my training to become a NASA astronaut in 2011. In March, I returned to Earth after spending 355 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. I am officially the American who has spent the most consecutive days off our planet.

Before our launch, there was a lot of uncertainty about how long the spaceflight would last. At first they told me it could last up to 355 days, but it only became official half way through the flight. As my wife and I knew this was a possibility, we planned for me to be away for this long. My previous spaceflight had lasted about six months, so I saw this latest and longer as a unique type of challenge.

The journey to the ISS in the Soyuz was surprisingly smooth. Even though watching a launch from the ground involves a lot of light and noise, on the spacecraft itself you go through the speed of sound so quickly that you leave all that noise behind. The predominant noise was that of the pumps whirring to push fuel out the back.

When you first arrive on the ISS, it takes some time to adjust to the fact that the room you are in is constantly falling towards Earth.

(L to R) Vande Hei with Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide and Megan McArthur pose for the first time with space-grown chili peppers aboard the International Space Station.

Left to right: Vande Hei with Shane Kimbrough, Akihiko Hoshide and Megan McArthur, pose with space-grown chili peppers for the first time aboard the International Space Station.

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You quickly realize that on Earth there are many things you do every day that do not require conscious effort. So when you’re in orbit, you have to relearn how to do them. For example, if you don’t pay attention to how to go to the bathroom, you could end up in a messy situation. When you sit down to go over your laptop, it’s important to always anchor your feet to the floor in some way, or you’ll end up floating all the way to the ceiling.

The ISS is about the size of a six-bedroom house, but you can go days without seeing one of your six or seven roommates. Basically, the ISS was built in several parts, and each part, or module, can be isolated and closed in an emergency. On this last flight, the Russians added two new modules, so the ISS now looks closer to a seven-bedroom house.

Most weekdays start between 6am and 7am GMT

Vande Hei uses an electric razor with a vacuum attached that collects the hair he cuts fellow NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.

Vande Hei uses an electric razor with a vacuum attached that collects the hair he cuts fellow NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.

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We have to wake up and eat breakfast before the 7:30 a.m. daily planning conference. During these sessions, we check with all the ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the United States. During the day you have an hour for lunch and then two and a half hours to exercise – on board we have a resistive exercise machine, a stationary bike and a treadmill. Our bodies adapt well to floating, so it’s important to exercise to keep our strength and bone density at a healthy level. We spend most of our days doing different tasks assigned to us by the teams on Earth.

On our team’s schedule, there is a line with each astronaut’s name and a horizontal line that moves slowly through the day. It guides us on what we are supposed to work on and helps us stay on track. My favorite thing is when I work with the other astronauts, but often we have separate tasks. If you happen to get ahead in your own work, you can go help someone else, which is always nice.

During this last flight, we participated in the realization of hundreds of experiments whether they happened behind the panels or on ourselves

Vande Hei directs the operations of the Plant Habitat-5 space farming experiment which studies the genetics of cotton.

Vande Hei directs the operations of the Plant Habitat-5 space farming experiment which studies the genetics of cotton.

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I see my role more as a lab technician than a scientist because I facilitate the success of experiments more than taking data, analyzing it or writing reports.

Within the team on board, there are surprisingly few “specialists”. With the extended duration of the flight, we realized that being a generalist is important as often the plan will change while we are there. So you often need people who can perform various tasks efficiently.

In addition to meetings, experiments and maintenance around the station, spacewalks take up the rest of the day.

Vande Hei during a spacewalk to service components of the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

Vande Hei during a spacewalk to service components of the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

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For example, we have upgraded and added solar panels, which are outside the ISS. The ISS is powered by solar energy, so it is important that we have a constant power supply. Although I didn’t do a spacewalk myself on this last flight due to a pinched nerve in my neck, I have done so in the past.

Being in space is like an extended fall towards the planet, with you and everything around you falling at the same rate, and without wind interference. That’s exactly what being in orbit is.

During the week, the workday continues until about 7:15 p.m., when we end with another planning meeting.

At weekends we usually had free time apart from about 3 hours of cleaning – I love to tell school children that

Every Friday or Saturday we had dinner with the whole team and then on Sunday we all watched a movie together. Each week, a different astronaut had to choose the one they wanted: one of my choices was “Yesterday”, with all the Beatles songs.

Vande Hei observes the Earth from inside the seven-window cupola, the International Space Station's window to the world.

Vande Hei observes the Earth from inside the seven-window cupola, the International Space Station’s window to the world.

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During the flight I spoke to my wife every day and my children usually every weekend. I was also able to reconnect with many relatives. It’s a pretty cool situation when you call someone and they’re blown away by the fact that you’re talking to them from outer space. Also, I started to meditate every day, and often I did it sitting at the window looking at planet Earth.

I’m still pretty choked up thinking about it. It is truly a unique experience.

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